Unlocking the Painful Beauty of America's Deep South
The day I moved back to Mississippi after living in New York for 15 years, I drove into a full-fledged Confederate funeral procession. On the corner of North Lamar Boulevard and Price Street in Oxford, I got out of my car and stood under magnolia, maple, and live oak trees that shaded throngs of sweaty white men dressed up like the soldiers of Lee's army. Some marched with guns holstered, hoisting a battle flag that took up two lanes of the road.
Near the front of the procession, behind a gray hearse, was the brown face of Paula Tingle Hervey, wife of Anthony Hervey, the author of a book called Why I Wave the Confederate Flag, Written by a Black Man, who'd been killed in a car crash two weeks earlier. The whole pitiful spectacle, fueled by a longing for a time when neither the Herveys nor I would have been free, was the kind of demonstration that had prompted me to run away from the Deep South 22 years ago. And yet it was also part of why, 22 years later, I decided to run back home.
After leaving Mississippi for college in Ohio, graduate school in Indiana, and ultimately a professorship in New York, I wasn't sure how much home I'd find when I returned to the Deep South — nor how much home the Deep South might find in me. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, I spent summers and far more weekends than I wanted to with my grandmother in the small poultry town of Forest. Located 45 miles east of Jackson and 55 miles west of the Alabama state line, Forest was what demographers call a minority-majority community. Most of its citizenry was black, but most of the political, economic, and social power rested with the town's white residents.
When Grandmama was young, most of our family, along with more than 3 million other black Americans from the Deep South, moved to cities in the Midwest in search of decent jobs and less terrorizing forms of oppression. Rather than join the Great Migration, Grandmama chose to remain, working first as a domestic and later as a buttonhole slicer at a chicken-processing plant, which meant it was her job to cut open the bellies and pull out the guts. Even though she was legally forbidden to drive down certain roads, to enter certain stores, to use the bathroom of her choice, or to vote freely until she was middle-aged, she insisted that the region rightfully belonged to black Americans, too. "We worked too hard on this land to run to Milwaukee," she told me. "Some of us believed, and still believe, this land will one day be free."
As a child growing up in the Deep South, I found nothing speculative or surreal in asserting that all who worked the land should have equal access to quality food and housing, equal access to transformative education, and equal protection under the law. We descendants of those who refused to run saw corpses hanging, but to us, they looked like angels flying. We watched the gray tears of the hanging moss trees dripping over the land. When we think of those trees, even more than the gray of the moss we think of the dark, bleeding-red brown of those trees' creased bark. That same brown saturates the soil, birthing cotton, soybeans, collard greens, and purple hull peas in Greenwood, Mississippi. It coats our hollowed manufacturing plants in Memphis, Tennessee. It peeks out of the open doorways of haunted plantations, mansions, projects, trailers, and shacks in Little Rock, Arkansas. It lines the cracks of the hastily built Confederate monuments commemorating bruising parts of yesterday we've yet to reckon in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Charleston, South Carolina. We see, smell, and feel the residue of that dark, bleeding-red brown in our region's music and literature, our classrooms and country stores, our churches.
When I was a child, Grandmama strategically placed box fans in the open windows of her pink shotgun house, so that even when the temperatures reached more than 100 humidified degrees, the interior felt like the coolest place on earth. No matter the race or gender of those who passed her house, if you were tired enough, hungry enough, Grandmama welcomed you onto her land. She welcomed you up on her porch. She welcomed you into her house. She listened to your story. She gave you ice water. She wished you well as you left, and she let you know, in one way or another, that the land would one day be free.
I ran from the land of the Deep South because I doubted my ability to fight for, and live on, land that should already be free. I ran back home when I understood that, though our land holds the most promise of any land in this world, it will never free itself. That work belongs to us, and I am ready to do my part.
Kiese Laymon is the author of a novel, Long Division, a collection of personal essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and a forthcoming memoir, Heavy. He teaches English and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi.
Photographer Andrew Moore shot these images between 2012 and 2017 on a large-format camera as part of a project to document the Black Belt, a crescent-shaped swath of the Deep South, originally named for its fertile soil, where many of the region's cotton plantations were located. He says that the images are meant to offer "reflections on the color black, women of the South, lost interiors and miniatures, Southern art and storytelling, and the history of photography in the South.”
"The Laney-Walker neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia, was once notable for its fine homes owned by black professionals," Moore says. "Mrs. Clara Hornsby, who is dressed for Sunday services in this picture, still tended the yard of her neighbor even though the occupant had passed away many years ago."
"The artist Butch Anthony cut windows through these stacked shipping containers to create the Drive-Thru Museum in Seale, Alabama," Moore says. "It is an extension of his Museum of Wonder, containing folk art, relics, and curiosities. Anthony’s elaborately decorated white Cadillac, to which he added, among other things, discarded sports trophies, used to belong to the musician Leon Russell."
"Large landowners used to operate small country stores that served as commissaries for tenant farmers,” Moore says. “Though most were closed many years ago, a few, like this one in Peterman, Alabama, have been turned into museums."
Manson, North Carolina
"The sign at Buchanan’s, in Manson, North Carolina, says it all: IF WE AIN'T GOT IT U DON'T NEED IT," Moore says. "It is supposedly one of the oldest general stores in the state." Near here, one of the boldest experiments in urban planning took place in the late '60s, an integrated community called 'Soul City,' which was later defunded and forced into insolvency by a young senator named Jesse Helms."
"Refugees from Napoleon’s inner circle who fled France after Waterloo founded Demopolis, the 'City of the People,' in 1819." Moore says. "Although they didn't last long in the backwoods of Alabama in their Parisian finery, the town they built has a remarkable legacy, including one of the finest integrated public school systems in the Black Belt. Demopolis's architectural high point is the Greek Revival plantation house Gaineswood, the interior of which can be seen here."
Beaver Dam Lake, Mississippi
"Beaver Dam Lake was formed from a bend in the Mississippi River that got chopped at the ends as the river straightened itself," Moore says. "The nearby town of Tunica, which lies at the top of the Mississippi Delta, was transformed in the '80s when some local entrepreneurs, circumventing state laws forbidding gambling on state land, began placing casinos on barges floating in shallow canals."
Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia
"Starting in the middle of the 17th century, the great Okefenokee Swamp, near Homerville, Georgia, famous for both its size and its density, was home to communities of fugitive slaves and Native Americans for nearly 200 years," Moore says. "Later it had a railroad running through it. Loggers harvested the last stands of ancient pine that had been cut down throughout the rest of the South."
Moncks Corner, South Carolina
"Located in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, north of Charleston, Mulberry Plantation dates back to the early 18th century," Moore says. "The manor house, one of the few built in the Jacobean style, sat on a bluff overlooking what was then an enormous rice field. Today these fields are mostly flooded and frequented mainly by hunters and fishermen. On an idyllic foggy morning, the misery bred by an empire of rice is a distant but not forgotten memory."